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Fla. funeral protest ban clears Senate committee

Published on -2/19/2013, 4:09 PM

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Legislation that would expand a ban on protesting, picketing and other disturbances at all funerals, memorial services and burials in Florida, rather than just those involving military honor details, is on a fast track after final committee approval Tuesday.

Florida's existing law, a federal statute and similar legislation in other states are largely a response to military funeral protests by a church based in Topeka, Kan.

The Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church congregation claim God is punishing the United States for tolerating homosexuality. Protesters often carry signs with message such as "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."

The church also has targeted other events. It recently threatened to picket funerals for 20 first-graders and six adults who were killed in December by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Protesters can face up to a year in jail and $1,000 fine for violating Florida's existing law. That penalty would remain unchanged under the new legislation.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee unanimously approved that chamber's version (SB 118) on Tuesday. A similar House bill (HB 15) earlier cleared all committees there. Both now are ready for floor votes after the legislative session begins March 5.

The Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, initially would have expanded the law to include funerals, memorial services and burials for military personnel without honor details as well as those for emergency response workers, elected officials and minors.

The committee, though, amended it at Benacquisto's request to include such events for anyone.

"We were told by multiple people that there's extreme constitutionality concerns by creating a protected class of person, whether it be a military person, an elected official or a child," said Matthew Hunter, an aide to Benacquisto. "Those are where we're seeing the picketing and engaging, so to try to get to alleviate that concern we broadened it."

The legislation covers prohibited activities within 500 feet of the property line of any home, cemetery, funeral home, church or other location during, or within an hour before and an hour after, a funeral, burial or memorial service.

Sen. Chris Smith, D-Ft. Lauderdale, said it's a good bill, but he was worried that it doesn't go far enough. He said he someone might avoid arrest by simply sitting down and holding a protest sign.

"I don't think that qualifies as picketing," Smith said. "If we can maybe put a better definition of someone just sitting there holding a vulgar sign and trying to fly under this as we go forward."

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 reversed a civil judgment against Phelps in Maryland for disturbing the funeral of a Marine who had been killed in Iraq. The justices ruled Phelps was protected by the First Amendment because he had exercised his free speech rights in a public forum and had addressed an issue of public concern.

The high court, though, noted even such protected speech can be regulated. The ruling also involved a civil claim rather than criminal laws such as Florida's. Those laws in other states have since been upheld by lower courts.

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